As the year 2010 comes to a close and the year 2011 begins, it’s time to look back on some of the politicians who are leaving office because of defeat, retirement, or the strange spaces that seem to fall in between.
These are folks who had a presence on the political scene, either long or short, but who have made their marks in different ways on the political consciousness in their arrivals, their service and their ultimate departures.
As is the fashion with these sorts of lists we do around here, the folks we’ve chosen to highlight include the folks that we and you, our readers, think of as being great — and others who are so bad that they’re good. Of course, there are plenty of departing pols who aren’t here. This is just a sampling.
So goodbye to 2010, and goodbye to these politicians. But who knows, perhaps we’ll be seeing some of them again, soon.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) — Defeated
This year’s Republican wave drowned a lot of Democrats — and one of the biggest of all was the progressive champion Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who lost 52%-47% to Republican businessman Ron Johnson after 18 years in Washington.
Feingold is best known for his contrarian reformist efforts in Washington, most notably the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law — though in fact, even this signature accomplishment has been undermined by a series of Supreme Court rulings, most notably the Citizens United decision that reopened the floodgates of corporate money in politics.
Feingold was also quite notably the only vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, expanding the surveillance powers of the federal government, which was hastily passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. At Feingold events in 2004, he frequently told constituents that he was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act — because he was the only Senator to read the Patriot Act.
Sen. Arlen Specter
(R-PA) (D-PA) — Defeated in Democratic Primary
The departure of Pennsylvania’s senior senator brings to a close about a half-century of distinguished public service in a variety of positions — and a variety of parties.
Beginning his political life as a Democrat, Specter served as an assistant counsel for the Warren Commission in 1964, and was a principal author of the “single-bullet theory” to explain the non-lethal wounds to both President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally — rather than separate bullets that would have pointed to more than one gunman. Then in the late 1960s and 1970s, he became the Republican District Attorney of heavily Democratic Philadelphia, where one of his top aides was future Democratic Philly Mayor and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. After unsuccessful Republican primary bids for Senate in 1976 and governor in 1978, Specter was finally elected to the Senate in 1980, as a Republican riding the Reagan landslide.
Over the course of his Senate tenure, Specter built a reputation as a moderate Republican, with strong social liberal positions and friendly relations with labor unions, but who could be a fierce partisan when it came to grilling Anita Hill or helping to sink the Bill and Hillary Clinton health care package. But over time, his moderate streak made him a target of the right, with a near-miss primary challenge in 2004 by Republican Pat Toomey. Then, after he supported the Obama stimulus package in 2009, his GOP poll numbers plummeted, polls indicated that he would lose in a landslide against Toomey in a primary rematch — and he switched to the Democrats, who officially welcomed him with open arms from President Obama to Specter’s old friend Ed Rendell.
Specter’s votes then shifted over time — he said he was becoming more comfortable being who he had really become — with him supporting Obama’s health care reform, Supreme Court appointments and other measures. But ultimately, his Republican history was too much to overcome with the state’s Democratic primary voters, and he lost the Dem primary by 54%-46% against Rep. Joe Sestak, who went on to lose the general election by 51%-49% against Toomey.
Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) — Retired
You would think that a strongly conservative Republican who also happens to have been one of the great baseball pitchers of all time would have had an easy, long run of things in Kentucky — but then again, you also have to factor in all the political wild pitches that were thrown by Jim Bunning.
Elected narrowly in 1998, Bunning then had a very surprisingly close re-election battle in the GOP year of 2004, thanks to such missteps as his insistence on appearing via satellite in a debate (in which many observers thought he might have been using a teleprompter), and saying that his tan-skinned Italian-American opponent Dan Mongiardo looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. He only won that race by a 51%-49% margin, lagging way behind President George W. Bush’s 60%-40% margin at the top of the ballot.
Bunning kept it up in 2009, such as when he predicted the imminent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been treated for cancer, to set up a heated Supreme Court confirmation battle in which he would take part. (Bunning later apologized. And he was wrong, too — he’s leaving the Senate now, and Ginsburg is still alive.)
For the 2010 cycle, Bunning frequently complained that his Kentucky co-Senator, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, was actively undermining his re-election bid by continuing to raise money while Bunning was up for re-election, and the GOP was courting possible alternative Republican nominees. In the end, Bunning gave in to the pressure and retired — but got in one last strikeout against McConnell, by endorsing the successful insurgent candidate Rand Paul against establishment favorite Trey Grayson in the Republican primary.
Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-DE) — Appointed Senator, Did Not Seek Full Term
An honorable mention goes to this former longtime Senate aide to Joe Biden. Kaufman was appointed to hold his boss’s former Senate seat upon Biden’s election as Vice President. As such, Kaufman became one of the most experienced freshman senators there has ever been.
Although he did not seek election in 2010, Kaufman put his expertise in the Senate to thorough use during his short service as an actual senator, most notably taking a lead role on the big issue of financial reform.
Indeed, there were an awful lot of liberals who wished he might actually run, when it looked like the seat would go to Republican Rep. Mike Castle. But as it turned out, liberals were just fine with the ultimate outcome when Democratic nominee Chris Coons was instead able to face the incredibly doomed Tea Partier Christine O’Donnell.
As Kaufman said of the political system, when he was nearing the end of his term: “I don’t know what to say about the system. The system is so awful.”
Gov. Charlie Crist
(R-FL) (I-FL) — Lost Race For Senate
One of the great political soap operas of the cycle was the saga of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who went from being a king of his big state GOP and one of the almost-running mates of John McCain in 2008, to being a total outcast from his former party and a pseudo-Democrat by the time it was all over.
The turning point was when Crist publicly campaigned for President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, breaking with the GOP’s orthodoxy in the rest of the country that the whole thing was a socialist plot to destroy the economy. As a result, though Crist still started out as the GOP establishment’s favorite for the open-seat Senate race, the rising wave of Tea Party activism ultimately propelled the more conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio to a commanding lead in the polls.
This ultimately spurred Crist to become an independent, with the initial polls showing him with a lead over Rubio and the lesser-known Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek. Crist’s effort to position himself in the middle often made it seem like he was trying to supplant Meek as the de facto Democratic nominee, and quite a few Democrats joined up with him.
But in the end, it was all a hypothetical point. With the Democratic vote badly split, Rubio won easily with 49% of the vote, with Crist at 30% and Meek with 20%.
On his way out of office, one of Crist’s final moves was to pardon the late Jim Morrison for his infamous 1969 conviction for indecent exposure at a Doors concert in Miami.
Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) — Term-Limited
The year 2010 brings to a close the nearly 40 years of public service by Richardson, who began his career as an aide to a Republican Congressman and ultimately became an active Democratic politician for 30 years.
Elected to the House in 1982, after an initial loss in 1980, Richardson became a chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a member of the House Democratic leadership, and then an official in Bill Clinton’s administration as both Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Energy. Then after Clinton left the White House, Richardson ran for and easily won two terms as governor of New Mexico.
But starting in 2007, things started to go wrong. His presidential campaign, like many others, was overshadowed by the two titanic presences of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And the one thing he did become well known for in the race was his frequent gaffes — most notably when he said during a Human Rights Campaign candidate forum that he thought homosexuality was a choice. He later explained that gaffe:
And, I always love the word ‘choice.’ I’m for freedom of choice, I have in my health care plan a choice where everybody can keep their health care plan. And so I always kind of feel it’s a golden word, and I didn’t think through what Melissa was asking me.
Richardson dropped out of the race the day after the New Hampshire primary, and later endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. During the transition period after the 2008 general election, Richardson was nominated for Secretary of Commerce — but withdrew his nomination, in what turned out to be a result of ethics troubles dogging his administration in New Mexico. Ultimately, no charges against him were ever filed.
In the November 2010 elections, Republican Susana Martinez defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish by a margin of 54%-46%.
However, we’ve not seen the last of Richardson, with his recent diplomatic trip to North Korea signaling that he could yet find his way back into the limelight.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) — Defeated
One of the breakout political stars of the past two years was this fiery single-term Florida Congressman, who rode President Obama’s 2008 wave — and his own self-financing — to narrowly knock off a Republican incumbent in a historically GOP district in the Orlando area.
Grayson became famous for his vitriolic attacks on Republicans, most notably his declaration that the GOP health care plan was for people who get sick to “die quickly.” He has also described Republicans as “knuckle-dragging neanderthals,” imagined Dick Cheney as a vampire with blood dripping from his teeth and even crashed a local Republican meeting in his district. (The latter event was of course captured on an attendee’s cell phone camera, and uploaded to YouTube.)
It often seemed like Grayson was putting on a piece of performance art, attacking Republicans with the vitriol they use all the time to attack Democrats, questioning their moral values and basic sense of humanity — and for this, people called him crazy.
In the end, Grayson lost by a whopping 56%-38% to Republican former state Sen. Dan Webster.
Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) — Defeated
The first Vietnamese person elected to Congress, Cao won in an upset in 2008 when he defeated the scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, who was then under indictment (and soon to be convicted) in a corruption scandal that involved cash being found in his freezer. But the fundamentals of this New Orleans-based district were always against Cao winning a second term. Barack Obama carried it by 75%-23% in 2008, and before that it went to John Kerry by a similar 75%-24% in 2004.
Cao tried his best to hew to the middle in his effort to win over his constituents — most notably when he voted in November 2009 for the House Democrats’ health care bill. (Interestingly, he later voted against the final Senate version.) Also in the run-up to the election he hinted he could possibly vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, and said he didn’t know what the GOP platform was.
Cao also got caught up with the notorious GOP direct-mail firm Base Connect, which is known for raising tremendous amounts of money for hopeless GOP candidates in solidly Dem seats, then keeping almost all of it as a commission. Here they had their dream client: An actual sitting GOP Congressman who was also in a hopeless district.
Even in a Republican wave year, Cao still lost re-election by 65%-33% to Democrat Cedric Richmond — who had a distinct advantage over Bill Jefferson a Dem nominee, in that he was not under criminal indictment.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) — Retired
First elected in 1994, Kennedy comes from a long political dynasty, as son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). For his own part, Kennedy worked throughout his tenure in the House on issues of mental health care — while simultaneously battling publicly with his own demons of substance abuse.
Kennedy announced his retirement in February 2010, several months after the death of his father, and shortly after the Massachusetts special election that was won by Republican Scott Brown. When he announced his retirement, he said that the loss of his father was a major factor in his decision to move on: “For me, I had an audience of one. That was my dad.”
Kennedy’s departure is also a very important milestone: For the first time in over 60 years, since the election of John F. Kennedy to the House in 1946, there will not be a Kennedy in elected office in Washington.
Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) — Retired
Among the many long-time Democratic House seats that flipped to the Republicans, perhaps none are more emblematic of the whole wipeout than the departure of Wisconsin Democrat David Obey. First elected in a 1969 special election, Obey served in this northwestern Wisconsin seat for 41 years, rising to the top position of House Appropriations Committee Chairman.
This time, though, Republicans hoped to make the issue of spending a major issue, and recruited prosecutor and former Real World MTV reality show star Sean Duffy. However, Obey retired, throwing his district up for grabs.
In November, with the same Republican wave that swept Wisconsin and wiped out Sen. Russ Feingold, Duffy defeated Democratic state Sen. Julie Lassa by 52%-44%.